Don’t forget about the age-old American slogan “taxation without representation.”
As a kid, Demi Stratmon saw the phrase “Taxation without Representation” stamped on the license plates in her home city of D.C. Though she didn’t understand it at the time, the slogan’s stuck with her.
Now at 21 years old, the meaning has fully sunk in. Stratmon spent last summer on the road as a youth advocate with the organization 51 for 51, a coalition of D.C. and national groups fighting to make D.C. the 51st state. She spoke with former presidential candidates, from Corey Booker to Pete Buttigieg, to urge them to support D.C. statehood.
As a D.C. resident, Stratmon must pay federal taxes but she doesn’t have a say in how Congress spends her money because D.C. residents don’t get a vote in Congress.
“My city was left out of the political process in so many ways,” says Stratmon, who recently graduated from Dartmouth College where she majored in government studies.
At most, Washingtonians have a delegate in the House of Representatives (currently Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton who can serve on committees, speak on the House floor but isn’t allowed to vote on final legislation) and two “shadow” senators plus one representative. This “ shadow delegation” can’t vote, isn’t paid and isn’t allowed on the Senate floor. Essentially, they’re around to lobby Congress and advocate for D.C. statehood.
The push for D.C. statehood isn’t new, but it’s usually a local issue. However, statehood gained national attention on June 1 when President Trump ordered the National Guard to disperse peaceful protesters who had gathered in Lafayette Square to demonstrate against the police killing of George Floyd. Police used violent tactics, such as tear gas and rubber bullets, to clear protesters. This wanton act highlighted the lack of autonomy D.C. has over its own affairs, 51 for 51 argues. However, the square is federal property and therefore under the control of the federal government, says Sheila Foster, a professor of law and public policy at Georgetown University. Even if D.C. gets statehood, there are some parts of the city the federal government would still control.
“One of the interesting and complicated things about making D.C. a state is the amount of federal property there is and that is under the control of the federal government,” says Foster.
Though, if D.C. was a state, in most cases its governor would have a say in whether the National Guard could be sent in to handle domestic law enforcement, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Foster has also noticed people outside D.C. talking about statehood for the first time. She compares the awakening of it to people’s skyrocketing support of the Black Lives Matter movement.
“Maybe we’re in this moment where we have a captive audience because people are at home and paying attention. But there is a lightbulb going off on these issues,” says Foster.
The fight for D.C. statehood has long been intertwined with civil rights. D.C. residents regained some of their voting rights in 1961 (they were first terminated in 1801), with the 23rd amendment, which allowed D.C. residents Electoral College votes in the presidential election. This took place against the backdrop of the civil rights movement. As Time points out, Black people made up the majority of D.C.’s population at the time. Thus, the amendment expanded the voting rights of Black people and pushed civil rights forward. A fight for further self governance, known as home rule, played out during the 1960s.
“When D.C. was still fully controlled by the government, there was much more of a movement to gain home rule which was successful during the 1970s that I would say grew out of the civil rights movement and played a big role in the city gaining more home rule,” says David Lublin, a professor of government at American University.
Lublin connects the current civil rights movement, sparked by the police killing of Floyd, with the push for statehood.
“The reality is [D.C. residents] have never protested in large numbers for statehood… the current Black Lives Matter protests have emerged around the issue of equal rights for D.C.,” says Lublin.
On June 26, the House of Representatives passed a bill on D.C. statehood. This is the first time ever a vote on admitting D.C. into the union has passed. The last time the issue even came up for a vote was in 1993 when Norton introduced a bill to the House, two years after she was elected. It failed miserably.
“The District at that time was staunchly for statehood, my predecessor had been for statehood, so the issue was very ripe when I was elected. But there had been little sense that you could get it through the Democratic-controlled House at that time. I decided to try to get that first vote to see what it would take even to risk losing that first vote, and, of course I did,” says Norton.
Even though the bill passed the House, there’s still a long road ahead. The Senate is unlikely to bring up D.C. statehood in its Republican-controlled chamber, never mind for a vote. Even if it did, the White House already said it would veto the bill if it passed the Senate.
Stratmon and the other 12 youth advocates (all of whom are Black) with 51 for 51 moved quickly from celebrating D.C.’s partial victory toward statehood and got to work. The coalition’s main strategy rests on pressuring senators to support statehood by changing the Senate’s rules to only require 51 votes to end a filibuster, a political debate meant to stall a vote. Currently, 60 votes are needed to end a filibuster.
The group points out this tactic has been used by the Senate to vote on Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch and all future justices, and thinks it should be used to also push forward D.C. statehood.
“The political reality is that even if we [Democrats] take back the Senate in November, Senate Republicans can and will use the filibuster to try and block D.C. statehood. The best and only path forward is to advance D.C. statehood with 51 votes,” says Stasha Rhodes, 51 for 51’s campaign manager.
In the past, filibusters have been used to block civil rights bills such as anti-lynching legislation and the famous Civil Rights Act of 1964, which brought an end to segregation in public places and banned employment discrimination on the basis of race, and other now protected categories.
Rhodes doesn’t think it’s an accident that D.C. isn’t a state, given its current demographics.
“Leaving 700,000 mostly Black and brown residents without a vote in Congress is racism,” she says. If granted statehood, D.C. would count itself among the states with the highest percentage of Black residents. D.C. also has a bigger population than both the states of Wyoming ( 578,759) and Vermont ( 623,989). Both Wyoming and Vermont have a population that is more than 92 percent white.
Though, Foster points out, when Democrats were in power the issue didn’t gain much traction either, “even when we had a Democratic president, a Democratic House, and Senate.”
Stratmon thinks statehood is a civil rights issue given “most of our residents are Black and brown. It gets into the whole conversation of what we’re seeing nationally of voter suppression of communities of color,” she says.
Norton thinks the issue has to do more with politics than race. If D.C. became a state, Congress would likely gain two Democratic senators.
D.C. is “becoming more and more white… It’s pretty hard to see race as a factor in the denial [of statehood]. I think it’s far more political than racial,” says Norton. D.C.’s population is 46 percent Black and 37 percent white when Latinos aren’t included in that count, according to the Census Bureau. Though the D.C. Policy Center, a nonpartisan think tank, suggests Black and Latino residents were undercounted and white residents were overcounted in the 2010 national census.
Jamal Holtz, a 51 for 51 youth advocate and D.C. resident, sees both politics and race as playing a role.
“The worry on the other aisle is that they get two new Democratic Senators. They’re going to be Black because that’s what our leadership looks like in D.C.,” Holtz says.
As part of its work to push forward statehood, youth advocates are pushing to make all Senate Democrats cosponsors of the D.C. statehood bill. They’ll also call people across the country to urge them to call their senators to support statehood. To educate Americans about statehood’s importance, advocates will direct people to 51 for 51’s secondary website.
Statehood is “not just important for residents of Washington but for the entire country. Adding two senators helps to make the Senate more representative,” says Rhodes.
Rhodes says 51 for 51 will keep fighting to make D.C. statehood a reality no matter who is president.
For her part, and despite obstacles in the Senate, Norton is bolstered by the bill’s historic passage in the House.
She points to a few reasons. The first being a Democratic committee in the Senate invited Norton to testify on D.C. statehood less than a week after the bill was approved.
Second is the upcoming presidential election.
“The polls now consistently show… that Democrats will take the Senate. That would bolster our chances enormously. Even further, polls show that this president is in such trouble that he is likely to no longer be president,” says Norton, who also recognizes polls have limitations and they could change. “When you look at statehood… you’ve got to think [about] it in terms of how change comes quickly because of changes in the House and the Senate, and they’re on the horizon this year for sure.”
Originally published at https://mashable.com